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Richard Wagner's personality has been so overshadowed by and almost merged in the great controversy which his schemes of reform in opera raised, that his life and character are often now sorely misjudged--just as his music long was--by those who have not the time, the inclination, or the ability to understand the facts and the issues. Before briefly stating then the theories he propounded and their development, as shown in successive music dramas, it will be well to summarize the story of a life (1813-83) during which he was called to endure so much vicissitude, trial and temptation, suffering and defeat.
Wagner and his Friends.
In 1852 the poem of the "Nibelungen Ring Trilogy" was finished. In 1854 "Rheingold" (the introduction of "Vorabend") was ready, and "Die Walkuere" (Part I.) in 1856. But "tired," as he said, "of heaping one silent score upon another," he left "Siegfried" unfinished, and turned to the story of "Tristan." The poem was completed in 1857, and the music two years later. At last, in 1861, he received permission to return to Germany, and in Vienna he had the first opportunity of hearing his own "Lohengrin." For three years the struggle with fortune seems to have been harder than ever before, and Wagner, in broken health, had practically determined to give up the unequal contest, when an invitation was sent him by Ludwig II., the young King of Bavaria--"Come here and finish your work." Here at last was salvation for Wagner, and the rest of his life was comparatively smooth. In 1865 "Tristan und Isolde" was performed at Munich, and was followed three years later by a comic opera, "Die Meistersinger," the first sketches of which date from 1845. "Siegfried" ("Nibelungen Ring," Part II.) was completed in 1869, and in the following year Wagner married Cosima, the daughter of Liszt, and formerly the wife of Von Buelow. His first wife, from whom he had been separated in 1861, died at Dresden in 1866.
A theatre built somewhere off the main lines of traffic, and specially constructed for the performance of Wagner's later works, must have seemed the most impracticable and visionary of proposals in 1870; and yet, chiefly through the unwearying exertions of Carl Tausig (and, after his death, of the various Wagner societies), the foundation-stone of the Baireuth Theatre was laid in 1872, and in 1876, two years after the completion of the "Goetterdaemmerung" ("Nibelungen Ring," Part III.), it became an accomplished fact. The first work given was the entire "Trilogy;" and in July, 1882, Wagner's long and stormy career was magnificently crowned there by the first performance of "Parsifal." A few weeks later his health showed signs of giving way, and he resolved to spend the winter at Venice. There he died suddenly, February 13, 1883, and was buried in the garden of his own house, Wahnfried, at Baireuth.
Wagner's life and his individuality are of unusual importance in rightly estimating his work, because, unlike the other great masters, he not only devoted all his genius to one branch of music--the opera--but he gradually evolved a theory and an ideal which he consciously formulated and adopted, and perseveringly followed. It may be asked whether Wagner's premises were sound and his conclusions right; and also whether his genius was great enough to be the worthy champion of a cause involving such revolutions. Unless Wagner's operas, considered solely as music, are not only more advanced in style, but worthy in themselves to stand at least on a level with the greatest efforts of his predecessors, no amount of proof that these were wrong and he right will give his name the place his admirers claim for it. It is now universally acknowledged that Wagner can only be compared with the greatest names in music. His instrumentation has the advantage in being the inheritor of the enormous development of the orchestra from Haydn to Berlioz, his harmony is as daring and original as Bach's, and his melody is as beautiful as it is different from Beethoven's or Mozart's. (These names are used not in order to institute profitless comparisons, but as convenient standards; therefore even a qualification of the statement will not invalidate the case.)
His aim (stated very generally) was to reform the whole structure of opera, using the last or "Beethoven" development of instrumental music as a basis, and freeing it from the fetters which conventionality had imposed, in the shape of set forms, accepted arrangements, and traditional concessions to a style of singing now happily almost extinct. The one canon was to be dramatic fitness. In this "Art Work of the Future," as he called it, the interest of the drama is to depend not entirely on the music, but also on the poem and on the acting and staging as well. It will be seen that Wagner's theory is not new. All or most of it is contained in the theories of Gluck and others, who at various periods in the development of opera consciously strove after an ideal music drama. But the times were not ripe, and therefore such music could not exert its proper influence. The twin arts of music and poetry, dissociated by the rapid advance of literature and the slow development of music, pursued their several paths alone. The attempt to reunite them in the end of the sixteenth century was futile, and only led to opera which never needed, and therefore did not employ, great poetry. In Germany music was developed along instrumental lines until the school arrived at its culmination in Beethoven; and when an opera composer stopped to think on the eternal verities, the result must always have been such a prophecy of Wagner's work as we find in Mozart's letters:
"October, 1781.--Verse indeed is indispensable for music, but rhyme is bad in its very nature.... It would be by far the best if a good composer, understanding the theatre and knowing how to produce a piece, and a clever poet, could be united in one...."
Other but comparatively unimportant features in the Wagner music drama are, e.g., the use of the Leitmotiv, or leading motive--found occasionally in Gluck, Mozart, Weber, etc., but here first adopted with a definite purpose, and the contention for mythological rather than historical subjects--now largely admitted. But all Wagner's principles would have been useless without the energy and perseverance which directed his work, the loving study which stored his memory with all the great works of his predecessors, and, above all, the genius which commands the admiration of the musical world.
Wagner's works show a remarkable and progressive development. "Rienzi" is quite in the grand opera style of Meyerbeer, Spontini, etc. The "Flying Dutchman" is a deliberate departure from that style, and in romantic opera strikes out for itself a new line, which, followed still further in "Tannhaeuser," reaches its stage of perfection in "Lohengrin." From this time dates the music drama, of which "Tristan" is the most uncompromising type, and by virtue of wonderful orchestration, and the intense pathos of the beautifully written poem, the most fascinating of all. The "Trilogy" ("Walkuere," "Siegfried," "Goetterdaemmerung," with the "Rheingold" as introduction) is a very unequal work. It is full of Wagner's most inspired writing and most marvellous orchestration; but it is too long and too diffuse. The plot also is strangely confused and uninteresting, and fails alike as a story and as a vehicle of theories, morals, or religion. "Parsifal," with its sacred allegory, its lofty nobility of tone, and its pure mysticism, stands on a platform by itself, and is almost above criticism, or praise, or blame. The libretto alone might have won Wagner immortality, so original is it and perfect in intention; and the music seems to be no longer a mere accessory to the effect, but the very essence and fragrance of the great conception.
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